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Camden Kids Get a Taste of Suburbia with Soccer, Music School

By Geoff Mulvihill, The Associated Press, September 20, 2003

Just seven miles away from one of the nation's most impoverished cities, Gina Hall, 17, grew up playing soccer in the suburban leagues in tiny Haddonfield.

Marisol Tiraeo, 13, never had a chance to play in her hometown of Camden until this year after the city got its first soccer league. With its second season beginning Saturday, organizers hope more players stick with it than in the rain-drenched spring, when fewer than half the 464 children who took home uniforms completed the season. "It's a way I can get rid of my energy," said Marisol, who adds she likes to run down the ball, even when it's pouring rain.

The advent of soccer in this city and a new music school has brought a touch of suburban life to kids in Camden.

When Barbara Riggs decided it was time for her 7-year-old granddaughter, Ayana Riggs, to start learning the piano, she decided to sign her up for lessons at the Camden School of Musical Arts, which this year became a full branch of Philadelphia's Settlement School of Music. "There are other options," she said. "All in the suburbs."

The Settlement branch, now housed in Sunday school rooms of a church in East Camden, is about to begin a $2.6 million project to renovate a building for its own use downtown, making room for 700 children to get top-notch private music lessons.

Piano lessons and soccer leagues may be staples elsewhere, but their availability is a breakthrough in Camden. The city has one of the nation's highest poverty rates. Its two big public high schools have reputations for high dropout rates and metal detectors at the doors. Three of the seven schools labeled "persistently dangerous" by the state last year are in Camden. The city is so bad off that the Legislature agreed last year to spend $175 million in state money to fix infrastructure and take over some functions of city government.

In such a community, regular kid-stuff has a greater meaning. Robert Capanna, Settlement's executive director, said it's "a kind of sign of stability and a kind of service that help build a community into something other than a collection of houses."

And it can make kids feel better about themselves. That's true even for those who aren't stars, like one 5-year-old in the youngest Camden Youth Soccer Club level, said Jerry Jerome, the southern New Jersey area recreation commissioner for New Jersey Youth Soccer. "She was standing on the field sucking her thumb and having a good time," Jerome said. "And I think that's great."

The Settlement School is run from Philadelphia and the prime organizers of the Camden Youth Soccer Club come from suburban southern New Jersey. But the idea for such endeavors has been around a long time. In the case of the Camden music school, it was started by Camden residents in 1986 as arts programs in the public schools were cut. It became an affiliate of the Settlement School in 1997 and a full branch earlier this year. Since then, enrollment has gone from about 100 to about 200. With the new building, there will be room for about 700. Capanna said the goal is to have at least half the students come from within the city. The school, which charges $15 per 30-minute lesson, uses financial aid to try to be accessible to families without much money.

Aid for the soccer program is coming in the form of volunteers and donations from the Philadelphia Kixx of the Major Indoor Soccer League, suburban youth leagues, Gina Hall's Haddonfield Memorial High School girls' team and the state police, among other places.

It wasn't always like this. Soccer fan Orlam Garcia moved to Camden from Nicaragua 34 years ago and soon began trying to organize a league for kids. He was never able to get the city funding or field space he needed to do it. "It's because the people don't believe in soccer," he said. "They believe in baseball, football and basketball." But soccer can do more than provide recreation, said Garcia, who is now field marshal for the CYSC, which has teams for kids from five to 15. He said he sees the potential in pickup games. "Every Saturday or Sunday, you can go out and see a lot of Mexican people playing soccer," Garcia said.

The league so far has players mostly from the city's older black and Puerto Rican communities. But Garcia and other organizers hope the league can get kids from the city's sizable Mexican, Cambodian and Vietnamese populations involved. The uniforms have writing in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese on them with that in mind.

Diversifying is also a concern for the music school. "We don't have a lot of people that speak English and Vietnamese," director Valerie Clayton lamented. Both the music school and the soccer league have difficulties that their peers in the suburbs don't have, including transportation. The stereotypical minivan-driving soccer mom does not exist in Camden. In fact, in Camden, soccer moms often are the coaches — and they too have trouble getting to all the games.

Settlement is on the northeastern corner of Camden. To get there by public transit, residents in other neighborhoods have to take a bus or train downtown, then take another bus out to the edge of the city. That's a barrier, Clayton said. Most of the students in the school now come from the closest sections of Camden or nearby Pennsauken. A new home downtown — just a few blocks from the central Transit Center — should help solve the transportation issue in the long run, Clayton said. The soccer league is trying to line up buses to take players from community centers in every neighborhood to the far-flung fields.

The music school, which provides scholarships for more than half its students and helps families find and buy instruments, has another barrier. "The only thing we can't help is making sure they have the support at home to make sure they'll practice," Clayton said. That's an eternal problem for aspiring musicians a few miles away in the suburbs, too, she said.